All in the family
Sugar Bowl resort was founded in 1939 when a few adventurous souls installed the first chairlift in California.
What started as an exclusive getaway for a few wealthy Californians quickly became a glamorous mountain environment that attracted movie stars, famous skiers and even Walt Disney, for whom many of the mountain’s features are still named.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, Sugar Bowl was a state-of-the-art ski area, according to Rob Kautz, the current president of the resort. During that time the resort was owned by the community of homeowners who bought into the Sugar Bowl village, and thereby received equity in the resort itself.
That ownership structure remains the same today, making Sugar Bowl one of the last family-owned resorts in the Lake Tahoe area.
But while the resort’s ownership structure did not change dramatically throughout its history, the nature of the ski industry did, and, says Kautz, the owners became overly conservative in funding mountain improvements during the 1970s and ’80s. That caused the resort to lag behind other Tahoe ski areas in terms of amenities and the skier experience.
That setback led the ownership and management of the resort to the realization that more capital needed to be raised to fund the improvements necessary to keep Sugar Bowl viable, according to Christopher Parker, director of resort planning and development.
And that realization led to the 1987 master plan that will only be fully realized within the next 10 years.
That master plan called for the development of the Judah Day Lodge and a learning center, and the construction of the three chairlifts on the Judah side of the resort ” Jerome Hill Express, Mount Judah Express and White Pine.
All of that work has been done since 1994, at a cost of more than $30 million, says Kautz. And that, he says, allowed Sugar Bowl to better cater to the day skier who comes up in the morning, skis or rides all day, and then returns home at night ” a clientele that is critical to the success of the resort.
“I think that the development here and the strategy of continuing to mold this ski resort is because of its ownership,” Parker says. “The ownership has always kept the viability of the resort as its number-one goal.”
And because day skiers are so important to the success of Sugar Bowl, the management and ownership have always been careful to meet the needs of both the homeowners in the village and the day skiers on the slopes.
“Our ownership is long-term and they really value the Sugar Bowl experience, which is the snow-bound, really intimate experience,” Kautz says. “So my charge in working with the board [of directors] is really to meld those two goals: To have an outstanding day-skier experience and enhance and improve the village experience here.”
“We haven’t quite completed everything that we planned to do just because of capital need,” Parker says of the buildout of the 1987 master plan. “But this year we’re going to pretty much complete everything that was master planned.”
Parker is alluding to an additional 12,000 square feet of cafeteria space scheduled to be added to the existing Judah Day Lodge to help with the congestion that currently exists there, and a 63-unit four-phase condominium complex that will be built on top of the current slope-side parking at Judah.
Currently referred to as the Judah Residential Project for lack of an official name, Parker says that construction of the 23 units in phase one of the complex will begin in 2006 and will be completed by December 2007, with the subsequent three phases built in the next three years after that.
A different form of residential development for Sugar Bowl, the new condominiums will not come with any equity in the resort itself. And unlike developments at many other resorts, there will be no timeshares among the planned 63 units.
Priced between $675,000 and $2 million, the two-, three- and four-bedroom condos have been designed with families who already come to Sugar Bowl in mind, many of whom already own second homes in the Tahoe/Truckee area but would prefer to live on the slopes.
“It’s not a village. It’s not going to have chocolate and dog leash shops on the bottom,” Parker says. “They are purely four little lodges. They’re three-story, not five… They’re sort of in a vernacular of Sugar Bowl and our honest architecture up here.”
In contrast to Northstar’s new village, which features approximately 100,000 square feet of commercial space, the Judah Residential Project will only contain one 1,905 square foot retail store that will be used, according to Parker to relocate the current Judah ski shop and tuning center, leaving more room for the rental/demo shop in the Judah Day Lodge.
Sales of the new condominiums will help fund other projects at the resort including the rebuilding of the deck at Sugar Bowl’s Village Lodge and the connection of the gondola building to the Village Lodge in a better, more efficient way.
It was the realization of the ownership that they had to do a better job of catering to day skiers that led to the construction of the Judah Day Lodge and other amenities. But it is the residents’ love of the separate snow-bound village that has kept development in the village to a minimum.
Accessed only by gondola or snowcat in the wintertime, the 87 single-family homes that make up the heart of the resort ” both emotionally and financially ” are filled with passionate skiers and snowboarders, many of whom come from younger generations of the resort’s founding families.
And while 33 homes have been built in the village since 1998, when 36 single-family homesites with an equity stake in the resort were made available ” not all of which have been sold, for the most part the village remains what it has always been.
“We want to expand our village to provide some critical mass, but at the same time our owners want to feel like it’s an intimate village where you really know everyone else in the village,” Kautz says. “It’s like living in a small town where you can walk into the grocery store and know everyone else in the store.”
Another limiting factor on growth in the Sugar Bowl village is the fact that it’s a strictly pedestrian village in the winter; cars are parked in the garage at the other end of the gondola and all houses must be within sensible walking distance of the village amenities.
Lots in the Sugar Bowl village are listed at between $550,000 and $850,000, which entitles the owner to build a house and comes with an equity stake in the resort. The money that has been raised through sales of village property has gone to finance the upgrade of the Mount Lincoln and Disney chairlifts to high-speed quads and other operating costs and amenities.
And, says Kautz, the expanded village also provides the capital needed to support the amenities the other owners want to see.
“Really, we’re expanding the village for two reasons,” he says. “One, the profits will be reinvested into our mountain. And two, we want to have a bigger village than we have here to support the restaurants, the recreation facilities, the ski team and all those other things that create a vibrant village.”
While some development is going on at Sugar Bowl, both the owners and managers agree that they are trying to get away with as little as possible.
Jim Harleen, a Sugar Bowl homeowner and board member, describes the philosophy underlying the resort’s development plans.
“I think the core of the Sugar Bowl community in the village wants very much what we have now, and they’re fighting hard to preserve it,” Harleen says. “In order to preserve it, we need to make sure we remain viable in the marketplace. You can’t have the amenities we want unless you have a means of paying for them.
“It’s sort of like protecting the sanctuary. And in order to do that we need to do a minimum amount of development.”
Building for more bed space would help the resort financially, says Kautz, but that’s not in tune with what the owners want to see at the resort.
“Would we be better off if we came up with a plan that would build 1,000 rental units here? Absolutely. Is that consistent with the vision my ownership has for Sugar Bowl? No it’s not. And that’s a decision we discussed when we went through our master planning process,” Kautz says.
But even with the limited amount of development going on in the village, Harleen argued that the strong sense of community among dedicated Sugar Bowl skiers and snowboarders is easy to share.
“The community spirit that’s being offered here is not just for villagers only,” he says. “There’s a core personality type: People that love the mountains. They love to ski, and they love the feeling of community and the core value of skiing and the mountain ethic that attracts people like that. It’s a very different profile of person than would be interested in perhaps a Northstar or a Squaw.”
When asked whether the new development at Sugar Bowl will change the character of the resort, Harleen agrees that it would. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he says.
“I actually think it’s going to have a positive effect on the village,” Harleen says. “The village 10 years ago, 15 years ago, went through a lull. If you talk to some of the older villagers they’ll tell you that during Christmas time there were a lot of dark houses and there weren’t a lot of warm beds. Now if you come here at Christmas time there are Christmas parties, there are kids out sledding on the hill. A little bigger community of like-minded people has generally been a good thing for the resort.”
As with any ski resort that’s in its 66th year, Sugar Bowl does have a number of maintenance issues that need to be addressed in the near future. The gondola is old and will have to be replaced sometime in the next 10 years, Parker says. And the Village Lodge could use a lot of sprucing up.
But all those improvements will be made because, as Kautz points out, the owners of the resort actually use the resort and can see firsthand what needs to be done.
“Our ownership, they’re not absentee owners. It’s not a big corporation,” Kautz says. “Everyone of my board members probably averages 40 to 45 days a year. So they’re here and the reason they own this company is because they love to ski. So it’s really experience driven and they want a great product.”
Harleen says he thinks that the Sugar Bowl product is different in that it is a “more intimate” mountain experience.
“We have to compete with those [larger resorts],” he says. “We need to offer a unique product. And we think there is enough of a market for the type of product that we’re going to offer, which is significantly different than the product they offer, and for me significantly better. I think there are going to be people who buy it and I think they’re going to be thrilled to be part of the community.”
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